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Clippers

Health is Clippers’ biggest obstacle to winning an NBA title

Coach Doc Rivers and Kawhi Leonard talk during a break in a Clippers game earlier this season.
Coach Doc Rivers and forward Kawhi Leonard have helped the Clippers head into the stretch run to the playoffs with the West’s third-best record.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

As Doc Rivers left chilly Boston last week on the eve of the NBA’s All-Star break, his in-season vacation beckoned: rounds of golf in a tropical locale.

But the Clippers coach knew better than to expect he’d leave basketball behind entirely.

“Right after the round,” Rivers predicted, “we are right back at the computer.”

For someone who has half-jokingly proposed “load management” for coaches, Rivers’ getaway was sorely needed. No matter how much time he spent tinkering at his laptop this week, Rivers had no way of knowing the answer to the issue on which his team’s championship hopes hinge.

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“We’ve got to get healthy,” Rivers said after a two-overtime loss to the Celtics on Feb. 13. “That’s going to be the key for us. And then we’ve got to play multiple games in a row as a group so we can kind of get some continuity.

“Other than that, I love our spirit, I love how we are. We’re good.”

Rivers exuded optimism, but the Clippers’ lack of health and continuity so far — and what that means going forward, when the games matter most — is a significant caveat.

When the Clippers gather Thursday for their first post-break practice, starting guard and firebrand Patrick Beverley will have missed seven of the team’s last 11 games because of an injured groin, though he took part in Saturday’s All-Star skills competition and said he “got out healthy.” Forward Paul George played only a half against Boston before reinjuring the same left hamstring that forced him to sit out 10 games in January.

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“I’m a little concerned about that one because that’s the second time now, maybe third” that George injured the hamstring in the last six weeks, Rivers said. “Listen, I don’t know what to do, but I know rest you have to do.”

While Kawhi Leonard and Paul George certainly helped the Clippers’ transformation into an NBA title contender, the team’s trades from a year ago played a big role too.

As George left Boston’s visiting locker room with a wrap around his lower back and a slight limp in his gait, inside his teammates said they felt undaunted — and a little déjà vu. As focused as they have been on finding the right tweaks to their offense and defense, it has largely been overshadowed by tweaks to their teammates’ ankles, knees, groins and hamstrings.

“Story of the year: We haven’t played with our whole team yet,” guard Landry Shamet said. “I think we’re making strides and we’re doing it in stints without everybody. It’s tough. I think we’ve shown the type of team we can be. It’s a matter of just finding a way to consistently be that.”

As a hedge against the potential of more short-handed lineups, the Clippers added insurance before and after the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

Marcus Morris, the 6-foot-8 forward acquired from New York, gives Rivers another option to compensate for the lost scoring and defense when either George or fellow forward Kawhi Leonard are out.

“We got to get him integrated,” Rivers said of Morris. “Secondly, because of the things he can do, there’s ways we can use him.”

Veteran guard Reggie Jackson, who was waived Tuesday by Detroit and is expected to sign with the Clippers upon clearing waivers Thursday, should take pressure off the backcourt. Both Morris and Jackson were viewed as among the most talented additions the Clippers could have added — and one spot on the roster is still open — but getting each comfortable playing with new teammates is a process requiring time and health.

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“I feel like we learned a lot about each other,” center Montrezl Harrell said in Boston at the end of a 1-3 road trip. “First time [Morris] really got to go out there and play after acquiring him along the road trip. We’ve still got some growing to do but I feel like we learned a lot about our team and what we can and can’t do going into end of games.”

In building the Western Conference’s third-best record, the Clippers (37-18) own two victories over the West-leading Lakers and 14 victories against opponents with .500 records or better, tied for second most in the conference. They boast the league’s sixth-best net rating despite playing 27 starting lineups.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s outstanding skills are one reason why the Milwaukee Bucks are fully capable of beating the Lakers or Clippers for the NBA title.

Injuries and the plan to limit forward Leonard’s regular-season workload have led George and Leonard to play together in only 24 games, but the team’s record in those games is 17-7.

“I think we’re in a pretty solid spot,” guard Lou Williams said.

But during the last month, they’ve also suffered puzzling losses to teams holding three of the NBA’s worst records and revealed their vulnerability to shortcomings not only with health, but focus. Unable to guard the perimeter, the Clippers helped Sacramento and Minnesota set franchise three-point records during blowout losses. They also surrendered a 21-point lead against Atlanta in January. The Clippers were short-handed against the Hawks and Timberwolves, but their opponents played without stars, too.

Five games behind the first-place Lakers, the Clippers appear locked in a battle for the postseason’s second seed. Second-place Denver is one game ahead of the Clippers and fourth-place Utah is a half-game behind.

“Being a pro means adapting to whatever circumstances come your way,” Shamet said. “That’s part of it. That’s what this job is and what it requires you to do, be ready to play, regardless of the circumstances. We’ll figure it out. We’re going to get better. We’re fine.

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“Nobody’s panicking, but it’s time to really turn it on and ramp it up and get going for the second half.”


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